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Book Club Reader Questions

During a book club reading How to Make Sense of Any Mess I received a complex question I really enjoyed answering, and thought others might enjoy as well. 

Do you have “go-to” definitions of simple/complicated/complex, and data/information/knowledge? I often find that these words are often used with no clear meaning in society.

In How to Make Sense of Any Mess, I write:

“Some things are simple. Some things are complicated. Every single thing in the universe is complex.”

When talking about an information architecture, the word simple tends to describe something that is “straightforward” or “basic” — meaning it takes little effort to interpret it. Whereas something that is said to be complicated tends to describe something that is “elaborate” or “advanced” — meaning it takes more effort or specialty to interpret. 

The word complex can apply to both simple and complicated things, because complexity is always in the eye of the beholder and interpreted through their intention. 

From a picnic-ers point of view, apple pie is simple. But making an apple pie from scratch for a novice is pretty darn complicated.

“To make an apple pie from scratch you must first invent the universe.” – Carl Sagan

If you want to describe it in the Carl Sagan sense, then apple pie as a concept is quite complex, meaning it has many interconnected parts many of which are out of any one person’s control.

The problem with dictionary definitions that you will find of these three words is that they are all mixed up in judgement when it comes to the usefulness or effectiveness of things. 

In design and tech, we often cast simple as the hero we all want to become and complicated as the villain we should avoid at all costs. And poor little complexity gets a terrible deal ending up being a synonym of complicated, entirely ignoring the absolute reverence one must have for complexity to make something seem simple to users.

Existing lexicographical sloppiness aside, here is how I define the distinctions between these terms in the context of information architecture:

  • Simple: Taking basic effort to interpret.
  • Complicated: Taking advanced effort to interpret.
  • Complex: Formed by a combination of interconnected elements and forces.

Now, in terms of the distinction between Data, Information and Knowledge. There are two important models working together when we interpret information from content.The story of how data is turned into wisdom in our mindsUseful distinctions between raw data, formed content and interpreted information

The story of how data is turned into wisdom. 

If you have spent any time studying up on the incredibly broadly defined concept of information, you will likely have run into various versions of the story about how data becomes information, which becomes knowledge, which becomes wisdom. 

This is a story that is well-intended for understanding how something goes from “random factoid that hits my brain” to “wisdom I can impart on others”

For example, one day you heard the words “Information Architecture” for the first time. You referred to your available data, information, knowledge and wisdom and said to yourself:

“Hey me. I know what information tends to mean in a sentence. I know what architecture tends to mean in a sentence. So when combined maybe it means…”  

BAM! Whatever you decided at that moment… that’s information and it’s totally unique to you at that moment.

Time passes, and as you read more and more content that other people have created with their knowledge and wisdom on this subject, slowly your information about this thing builds and crystallizes into something more than just something stored in your head. You are building your knowledge about this concept and how it fits into the rest of what you already know. This is still completely unique to you in each moment. Before you know it (lol) you feel like pointing out IA in real life examples and discussing it with unsuspecting victims. Welcome to wisdom.  

All of these phases happen in our head. And to my knowledge (lol) there is not any scientific distinction worth drawing between knowledge and wisdom. There are however AMPLE information technology products using this less-than-useful distinction to convince you that making sense of your mess is really just about finding the right platform or the right AI who can turn all your knowledge to wisdom. When really what they much more often want to do is take all your content and move it to a different walled garden.

Ok, let’s talk about content!

Now that we have gone through that first model about the story of how data becomes wisdom, let’s talk about what I believe are useful distinctions between raw data, formed content and interpreted information.

When we make things for other people with only the first model in mind, in my humble opinion we miss our roles as sensemakers entirely. We cannot make information for our users, we can only make content to help them form the information we wish for them to have. 

Too many people make the words content and information synonyms, often in dangerous ways that force myths like “Users don’t ______” (read, scroll et al)

In teaching people to make sense, I find that there is a useful distinction to draw instead.

  • Data is the raw materials we use to shape what we are making. 
  • Content is the form we choose for our intended message. 
  • Information is whatever the user interprets.
  • Knowledge is awareness of your unique information about a subject.
  • Wisdom is usable judgement around your unique information about a subject.

Thanks to John and Shivanand for this great line of questioning on Chapter 1!

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